Gem Quest: 4 Elements
DS | Storm City Games | 1 Player | Out Now (North America)
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27th May 2011; By KnucklesSonic8
Most match-three games nowadays have a storyline of some sort to tie the individual puzzles together beyond just a basic step-by-step progression. Usually this proves to be a worthless effort, so I didn't expect to be wowed by this game's attempts. The storyline they've tried to push here feels like something out of the middle ages -- ye olde times of wizards, dragons and mysterious ancient writings. Players go on a quest to unlock the secrets of four mystical books that contain the power of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. There's a suggestion that the people of the unnamed land are in a pitiable state from these elemental powers wreaking havoc on their kingdom. So by the end of it, you'll be saving lives. The concept is sufficient I suppose, but I'd argue that it's a little convoluted for most people's tastes and it's definitely not nearly as "gripping" as the developers think.
Before even getting into the puzzle component, you must locate a special key to unlock the contents of the book you need access to. Players are asked to use the +Control Pad to look around an interactive scene, tapping shards of key objects to put them back together for use. Once these items have been restored, you can tap one of the gears on-screen to pull up a menu that allows you to change the scenery if you have the right item, like using a pick axe to destroy a rock wall. This part plays out much like a Hidden Object mini-game of sorts, and for what it is it's a decent addition to the game but I didn't think much of it in the grand scheme of things.
Once you've unlocked the book in question, you'll be able to jump in and get that match-three fix you were hoping for. At the start of a puzzle, the camera will trail from the end of the level to the starting point in a quick motion that may very well get you dizzy if you look too closely. When this happens, you can get a good idea of what you're in for; specifically, how large the level is that you're involved in. And a good portion of the layouts in this game were surprisingly big, lasting upwards of 5 or even 10 minutes at times and that's definitely a strength in this scenario.
Your goal in each puzzle stage isn't to fill a meter, but to lead a flow of energy from the starting point to the magical alter at the end of each level. To make matches, you simply drag the stylus across the gems you'd like to target and release once you've made your selection. Making a match with three gems of the same colour will break down the rocky layer underneath to create a path for the energy to follow. Matching five gems or more will create explosions that can destroy surrounding blocks. The more chains you make, the bigger the explosion.
The stage layout is displayed on both screens, making it easy to observe the different options you have available to you and plan ahead. You can move the camera's view within a limited range by using the +Control Pad, or using the stylus while holding L or R. You can also get a more complete (albeit rough) look at the entire level by pressing B. The top screen also displays the level you're on, your current score, and a gauge showing how much time you have remaining.
Each gem colour corresponds to one of the four icons situated at the four corners of the Touch Screen. These represent four different power-ups that can be activated once enough energy has been accumulated within the circle. The first item is a Spade that allows you to clear a block just like that without having to make a chain. You also have a Swap move, a Reshuffle, and a Bomb. Although the power-ups may not seem to have a big impact on gameplay at the beginning, you'll find out later on that the puzzle layouts are organized in such a way that you have to use them just to advance which is great.
As you're playing, bold arrows will pop up on a semi-regular basis to point out nearby chains you can make. This is in contrast with most match-three games where hints appear after a button is pressed. In this game, they appear automatically which is not necessarily a bad thing for when you're stuck. But I honestly found myself turned off by the whole thing very quickly. It wasn't long before I realized that it took away from figuring things out on your own and, what's more, I actually felt like it was insulting your intelligence with the frequency at which these hints appeared.
Aside from the normal gem pieces, there are also gimmick tiles that make an appearance from time to time. The most common of these are the sharp daggers that follow along a short straight path once they've been activated by the energy flow, clearing away a line of tiles. You also have rocks and ice blocks that will require the use of the Bomb or Spade power-ups or a big chain explosion to clear.
With respect to the energy flow, there were two issues that I noticed during my playthrough of this game that really got on my nerves after a while. The first has to do with the camera. When the energy flow starts to follow a path that continues off the screen, the camera will automatically start to follow it as it continues to travel. But what's annoying is that sometimes you're not exactly "finished" with a given area because there are still major chains that can be cleared for points. What ends up happening is you can either let the camera takes its course or hold the +Control Pad in the opposite direction to basically fight with it so you can do what you need to do. Then, when you're ready, you can press A to just jump to the spot where the energy flow is idling. Really, I shouldn't have to fight with the camera in a game like this, and I found this very annoying.
Another thing that bugged me was the framerate. Often times, the game seems to lag a few frames behind normal to the point that you just associate the reduced pace as being normal. But then on random occasions, the game will speed up and seem to flow a lot faster. I imagine this has something to do with the mazes being the size that that they are, but still I found it to be a nuisance having to sit through a jumpy framerate.
For every four levels within a puzzle book that you complete, you'll participate in a weak bonus level to fully reveal the gibberish text within the contents of the book. Here, you turn your DS on its side and look out for differences between two pictures. It's not very challenging at all, and the fact that there's nothing stopping you from tapping your way through it doesn't help matters. Either way, it's just not enjoyable to engage in these events even if they were a misguided attempt to add some variety.
This cycle of completing four puzzles then doing the bonus level continues throughout the entire game. Each individual book contains 16 stages, so you won't move onto the next one until after you've endured about a half hour's worth of solving puzzles. But by this point, you'll have gone through so many mazes that you'll definitely need a break from the game. By the same token, though, Gem Quest: 4 Elements is an addicting game to play, making it adequate for short bursts. Anything longer than that, and you do start to get tired of it.
After having spent hours with the game and completing all of the 60+ levels, you'll discover that there's nothing else to do afterwards. Despite what the boxart says, there are no Wi-Fi features to speak of, so don't be misled by that. In the end, you're not playing for the story or the bonus features, but for the puzzle gameplay, and for what it is, it works pretty well.
Finishing off with a note about presentation, I thought the whole thing felt mediocre in the way everything was presented visually. And as far as audio goes, the music stays the same in every single puzzle, so after a while I just muted it completely since it was getting very boring to listen to.
I think you could do a lot worse than this. Although I do respect the fact that the developers aimed for something a little deeper with the storyline, as a whole it's just too convoluted. Additionally, the bonus mini-games don't do much for the overall experience. Still, Gem Quest: 4 Elements does have good gameplay, and in spite of the flaws with the technical execution, that alone makes it worth spending the money on if you're a casual gamer.
19/30 - Good
Gameplay 8/10 - There's more to making matches than just filling a meter, large-sized levels, bonus events, puzzle layouts encourage use of power-ups
Presentation 5/10 - Convoluted storyline, irritating technical flaws associated with the energy flow, repetitive music, jumpy framerate, mediocre overall
Enjoyment 3/5 - Can be addicting in short bursts, gets tiresome over long sessions, bonus events are lame, automatic hints take away from the experience
Extra Content 3/5 - Plenty of levels to plow through, no bonus features, false advertisement featured on the box, good value for the price
Equivalent to a score of 63% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating)